By: Chloe Berge
This year, the world changed forever. The pandemic that swept across the globe left collective grief and loss in its wake and threw the issues of climate change and racial justice into high relief. But it also revealed the best of humanity as we rallied to support each other. We saw how interconnected everything is, from global supply chains to how small, individual actions that protect others can have an enormous impact.
As our lives forcibly slowed down, many of us also faced an existential reckoning. We contemplated our values and questioned how we live, including how we travel. Emissions from tourism add up to 8% of the global total, according to a 2018 study published in Nature Climate Change. Now more than ever, these statistics are compelling people to re-think the frequency and the purpose of their future trips.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the idea of regenerative travel has entered the tourism space. With roots in regenerative design and agriculture—systems that mirror the equilibrium found in nature—regenerative travel is an ethos that seeks to propel sustainability from a practice that mitigates damage to one that creates positive change, enriching the places we visit.
A shift in consciousness
A 2019 report by the Center for Responsible Travel found an increasing number of travellers are becoming aware of the impact they have, and Booking.com’s 2019 sustainable travel report shows that 72% of travellers believe that people need to act now and make sustainable travel choices to protect the planet. The maelstrom of 2020 has brought this simmering shift toward using travel as a positive force to a boiling point. As tourism slowly recovers from a year that devastated the industry—which accounts for over 10% of employmentworldwide—many hope a comeback will usher in a new era in travel that helps the planet heal.
“When COVID hit, it really showed how fragile the tourism system is… It opened a lot of eyes to how tourism is connected to agriculture and infrastructure and waste management and all of these areas that hadn't necessarily been noticed before,” says Samantha Bray, managing director for the Centre for Responsible Travel (CREST). “Now is the time for people to aspire to what can be better, not just how we maintain the status quo.” This idea of interconnectedness is integral to the regenerative mindset.
CREDIT: PLAYA VIVA, MEXICO
Too often, the affect of climate change on our natural environment is siloed, seen as separate from personal well-being and social equality. Regeneration takes a holistic approach to sustainability that asserts people and place must be considered equally and symbiotically in order to create real change. “True sustainability is about stewarding and protecting functional working systems, including the natural, cultural, and economic sides of things,” says Bray. “Sustainability requires all of those components to be thriving.”
The whole systems approach
Eco-luxury resort Playa Viva is hugged by the aquamarine Pacific Ocean and the lush Sierra Madre Mountains on the west coast of Mexico. Open-air treehouses that echo the geometry of nature frame views of sparkling waves and star-studded night skies. The resort is part of Regenerative Travel, a global collection of properties dedicated to regenerative values. Designed with this ethos in mind from the get-go, founder David Leventhal worked on Playa Viva’s concept and design with Bill Reed, a design and planning consultant and co-founder of the LEED Green Building Rating System. Playa Viva is built with renewable materials harvested on-site, runs 100% on solar energy, and relies on permaculture, a design principle that mimics self-supporting, natural ecosystems.
Community outreach and reforestation projects are also integral to the experience here, where guests learn about these initiatives in an organic way at communal meals and through a complete immersion in nature. This whole ecosystem approach has its roots in regenerative agriculture, a system of farming practices that enhance soil quality and increase biodiversity to simultaneously benefit the health of people and planet. “If you degrade the soil through industrial agriculture processes, you're really extracting all the value of that land until there's nothing left,” says Leventhal. “If you think of a piece of property where a hotel is located, similarly, how can you move from an extractive model to a model that puts back into that place everything that was there and create a really rich environment?”
The idea permeates everything from room design to the resort’s food. “From a farm to table standpoint, we’re not just [focusing] on what comes from our property but working on developing an entire food chain and food ecosystem that supports us,” says Leventhal. To this end, the Playa Viva team works with the local community to sustain a healthy watershed and support sustainable fishing.
The link between these models of travel and agriculture has also given rise to regenerative agritourism, where travellers get a hands-on education in how our own well-being is inextricably linked to the health of the planet. Thirty minutes north of London, England, the noise of modern life drops away behind a curtain of emerald trees and organic gardens at Birch Community. The 55-acre nature escape works with local organizations like Full Circle Farms to weave the practices of regenerative agriculture into the guest experience. “[Agritourism] brings people into regenerative practices in an experiential way,” says Katharine Millonzi, a regenerative agriculture, hospitality and travel sustainability strategist. “It’s an inroad to a larger cultural shift.”
CREDIT: BLUE APPLE BEACH HOUSE, TIERRE BOMBA, COLOMBIA
Connection between people and place
A whole ecosystem approach to sustainable travel must factor in people as part of the equation. If communities aren’t healthy, how can the natural environment be? “Regenerative travel at its core is about connectedness between nature and humanity... So, when it comes to tourism, it's really about engaging that community in the decision-making process,” says Bray. This involves looking past the surface level of sustainability issues and targeting their root cause within a destination, and outside of a resort’s walls.
“Being regenerative means to take into account all the stakeholders that you affect… and how you can cause effects that go beyond your business,” says Portia Hart, founder of Blue Apple Beach House, a sustainable boutique hotel on the sun-baked, palm tree-freckled island of Tierra Bomba near Cartagena, Colombia. In order to deal with the waste management problem on the island, Hart created a non-profit foundation that acts as the only centre in Cartagena that recycles glass and processes organic waste and works with 15 other businesses.
Hart explains that for guests, regenerative travel is about small, eye-opening moments. “That's one of the things that I like most, when you see somebody realize that they can crush their wine bottle after lunch and see it turned into sand and then find out that the cabana that they're sleeping in was built with the sand from these bottles,” says Hart. “It’s seeing [guests] realize that as travellers, they have the ability to choose places that are not only fantastic, but also have a positive environmental and social impact.”
Bringing the local community into the fold is important in developing a new property or tourism plan to ensure an authentic sense of place, history, and culture. This could mean consulting with Indigenous groups when devising environmental strategy or employing local people in a way that empowers them to move up through the business in a meaningful way. Doing this also transforms a guest’s experience. “If the staff of the hotel are not well-respected or don't have salaries that enable them to live a good quality of life, it's very difficult for that staff to provide a high-end service,” says Hart. “What really makes a difference to the client's experience is having staff who feel a sense of ownership.”
The inner journey
By setting the stage for travellers to have personal, revelatory moments about how impactful sustainable travel can be, there is potential for a shift in perception and behaviour that extends far past their trip’s end date. “Where sustainability has fallen a bit short is that it’s often listed as criteria, and if it’s just criteria then it's difficult to get people to embody it,” says Jake Haupert, founder and CEO of the Transformational Travel Council (TTC), an organization aimed at intentionally travelling to transform how we live our lives and engage with the planet.
“This is about embodiment; this is about behavior change,” says Haupert. Haupert and his team are working on developing a Transformative Destinations Program, which will help regions adopt regenerative tourism principles to create opportunity for inner and outer transformation to occur.
“The only real change that we can make is at a personal level,” says Leventhal. Which is why in addition to embracing an ethos of social and environmental responsibility, personal wellness is also part of the guest program at Playa Viva, from yoga and fresh, locally-grown food to reaping the restorative effects of being close to nature. “COVID is just one wave of the tsunami that's going to hit us called climate change,” says Leventhal. “If you understand that, then your underlying thought process is, ‘I have to be part of healing the planet, and that echoes into everything that you do. The planet can't be healthy unless I'm healthy,” adds Leventhal.
CREDIT: PLAYA VIVA, MEXICO
Creating a sustainable future
Experiencing the beautiful, diverse world we live in through travel instills a desire to protect it, and a regenerative mindset may help us deepen this sense of advocacy. In order to change at the rate and scale that will be necessary for the survival of our species and planet, we’ll need to adopt a more holistic, whole-systems approach to sustainability and reimagining travel is part of that. “People travel better, they're going to live better; they travel more mindfully, they're going to live more mindfully,” says Haupert.
We need to take action that not only transforms a place now but creates lasting change for the generations that come after us. “Regeneration is focused on legacy,” says Hart. “We live and operate on a planet where things happen in the hundreds and thousands of years, so, a truly regenerative business is thinking far beyond itself—what's the lasting impact? Is the community where it was located more equal? Is the ecosystem and biodiversity more robust?” explains Hart.
As we recount all of the things we lost in 2020, we must also take stock of everything we’ve gained. The chasm of this year has created space for us to evolve. The journeys we go on can play a critical role in awakening self-awareness and highlighting our relationship to each other and the natural world. It’s time to move forward, better.
Chloe Berge is a journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. covering travel, climate, and health. Her work appears in Condé Nast Traveler, BBC, Canadian Geographic, ELLE Canada, and elsewhere. Follow Chloe's adventures on Instagram.